Have you ever had an experience with the paranormal? The Witnessing has.
Maybe it’s not a common question, and the answer’s usually “no,” but it is the first thing you’re asked before attending The Witnessing, the 2018 Fringe Festival offering from The Unmarked Door. The show centers, as many great horror stories do, on a healthy sense of skepticism for the supernatural. Our host, Dr. Daugherty, is an expert debunker of various hauntings, but something about tonight seems different. Is that a chill in the air? A whisper from the corner of the room? Writer Sterling Powers, director Lola Kelly, and The Unmarked Door have invited you to a lecture on logic in the face of the unexplainable that’s about to go terribly wrong.
The Witnessing is based on a simple concept: guests are attending a lecture by Dr. Daugherty where he and his assistant will prove that there’s a reasonable explanation for several supernatural occurrences they’ve investigated. As far as the “immersive” elements contained herein, attendees are invited to examine several “cursed” items from the aforementioned events, chat with Daugherty’s assistant, and even grab a work-conference-appropriate cup of weak coffee from the obligatory snack table. The setup is easily accessible for newcomers to immersive theatre, but still manages to maintain enough interactivity to pique the interest of veterans to the medium.
Once the presentation begins things take a turn for the bizarre very quickly, and the well-placed sound and lighting cues within the room herald the slow realization that Dr. Daughtery, despite all his bluster, might not have an explanation for everything after all. That’s where The Witnessing really succeeds; by creating an atmosphere that’s just spooky enough without trying too hard to shock its audience, and maintain the tiniest of attachment to reality. It’s a refreshing approach to horror-theatre that is sometimes lacking in immersive performances; horror productions can often come off heavy-handed when the attempt to disturb an audience is favored over storytelling.
The Unmarked Door, in a similar vein to their 2017 holiday production, Heart of Winter, manages to tell an engaging story—a traditional “haunted house” story that’s spread beyond the “house—while still maintaining what’s rapidly becoming their trademark sense of dark whimsy. The Witnessing may be somewhat light on actual “immersive” elements (once the lecture begins, guests are mostly relegated back to the role of passive audience member,) but this kind of dual approach—a short pre-show immersive portion followed by the actual meat of the story—is what allows newer immersive audiences to engage with the material without feeling overly obligated to guide the narrative. Those who’ve been to many immersive productions may balk at a perceived lack of audience agency, but the story told here is thoroughly engaging and portends a bright future for the creative team at The Unmarked Door.
The Witnessing takes the ghost story we’ve heard dozens of times and puts us on the intellectual fringe of it; it’s entirely up to the audience to decide what they think is real or disprovable. It’s in the play’s title; we as participants will be the ones witnessing the incomprehensible. Dr. Daugherty says he’s the expert, he says that everything will be explained in time, but what is that strange sound? Did you see those lights flicker on and off? Can you ever really be sure that the afterlife is a myth? And there’s still one more question you need to ask yourself, once the lecture concludes: have you ever had an experience with the paranormal? Don’t be too surprised if your answer has changed.
For more information on future offerings from The Unmarked Door, visit them on their website, on Facebook, or on Instagram. To read Haunting’s interview with The Unmarked Door’s founder Rolfe Kent, click here.